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February 21, 2008

A participants' view of the assessment process

Pitt’s ongoing initiative to assess student learning outcomes institution-wide is nearing completion of its second phase.

During the first phase, which ended in March 2007, departmental faculty developed an assessment process and identified 3-5 learning outcomes specific to their majors.

Phase 2, which concludes March 3, calls for follow-up of phase 1 work, as well as a separate evaluation at the school level of all general education requirements.

Following is a sampling of views from Pitt faculty and administrators who are taking part in the ongoing assessment process.

Lynne Connor, associate professor of theatre arts, said her department’s assessment committee met about three or four times each term during the two-phase process that will be completed next month.

“We also worked in sub-committee groups and individually between those meetings to prepare the matrices, including gathering and analyzing data,” Connor said. “The work was labor intensive for the committee members, but it went smoothly and generated productive conversations on teaching and learning strategies.”

She said that two learning outcomes for undergraduate theatre arts majors that her committee identified were:

• Students will use their knowledge and skill in one or more areas of the theatrical arts (acting, directing, set design, costume design, lighting design and sound design) to strengthen their critical thinking, public presentation skills, collaborative relationships and community involvement.

• Students will participate in research-based lab productions and workshops and will be able to use advanced technical and visual communication skills to become adept at translating research, interpreting a script and collaborating effectively with other theatre artists in order to produce a theatrical performance.

Among the recommendations that came out of this year’s evaluation is that the department will design mid-term progress reports for all classes, Connor said. “We will also work together to design rubrics that can be used in both performance and history/literature courses,” she added.

William Layton, director of graduate studies in mathematics, said his committee worked expeditiously on completing its task. “This took approximately three full days including staff time,” Layton said.

The math department identified the passing rate of its graduate students on PhD preliminary examinations and grade point averages as two learning outcomes to track.

“The placement of our PhDs is the primary marker of excellence in a PhD program in mathematics,” Layton said. “An accurate assessment can be made by looking only at this one thing. However, since we chose the easiest [thing] to assess, snags were minimal compared to that which is to likely to come,” as the department adds other outcomes to assess in future years, he said.

Frank Beatrous, director of undergraduate studies in mathematics, led the committee that evaluated the department’s major program.

“The assessment for undergraduate programs in mathematics and applied mathematics will consist of an end-of-undergraduate-career test of competence in a collection of core areas that are represented by a collection of courses taken by all our majors,” Beatrous said. That online test is administered to graduating seniors, and data will be available in April.

“The test covers material from throughout a student’s undergraduate career, and will tell us how much of that body of material is retained by graduation. This will guide us in fine-tuning our programs,” Beatrous said. “The process of assembling the assessment test has already generated interesting discussion of what constitutes core material for mathematics majors, and will likely result in some rethinking of syllabi for our core courses.”

The task of assessing general education requirements (GERs) in the School of Arts and Sciences (A&S) fell to the Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Council, led by Juan Manfredi, associate dean for Undergraduate Studies.

There are 10 GERs in A&S, Manfredi noted, and hundreds of courses school-wide approved to meet the requirements.

“However, in each category — for example, a course in the arts or a course in historical change — a substantial number of students meet the requirement through completion of a small selection of these courses,” Manfredi pointed out. “As few as five courses in one GER category may be used by 90 percent of the students to fulfill a given requirement. We are focusing on this subset of courses, which have been identified by data analysis.”

During the fall term, the Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Council held several meetings where assessment was considered in general, he said. “Our starting point was the curriculum document approved by the Arts and Sciences faculty in April 2002, where the current GERs were approved. There are provisions in this document to determine whether courses are appropriate for the general education curriculum and for curriculum review every five years.”

Chairs and program directors were asked to consult with their faculty, Manfredi said. “Our objective is to develop, in conjunction with the faculty, 3-5 learning outcomes for these courses that reflect both their relationship to the major and to general education.

“We also solicit from the faculty teaching these courses suggestions on proposed assessment techniques and on the expected standard of comparison for each learning objective that is submitted.

“Faculty within each department will be asked to implement the assessment of these courses. Our goal is to assess the GERs requirements and whether the program provides students with the learning objectives established by the faculty.”

In January the council proposed a three-year review schedule rotating assessment of the 10 GERs, which was approved by the A&S deans, the A&S Council and the A&S planning and budget committee, he said.

“It might very well be that in three years we decide to revise a given general education requirement or all the GERs. We will then follow the established process of shared governance regarding the curriculum. We first need to collect data, however,” Manfredi said.

“We had some intense discussions at A&S Undergraduate Council. It took some time for a common theme to emerge. Definitely, the process served as a great stimulus for debate. We are only at the beginning of a multi-year process. I am sure there will be challenges that we will need to address through collaboration and discussion.”

—Peter Hart

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